Sonic LAB: Roland GAIA SH01 PolySynth Review

US Exclusive first review      29/03/10

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    MP4 11:22 mins

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So, Roland finally release a synth that IS actually a synth - one with knobs on and a rather SH series look - that's faders aplenty.
The GAIA (SH-01) sure looks nice enough with its white livery and black facia,  and there's there's plenty of hands on control:
18 Faders
11 knobs
58 backlit buttons
Mod/Pitch Wheel


Thats more than we've seen on an affordable Roland synth for quite some time. All I can say is - GREAT! (Probably) Lets take a closer look...


MIDI IO, Audio Stereo LR output, Phones, Stereo ext in (minijack), USB A and B-type connectors,sustain pedal.


Start Your Engines
The synth engine is a simple subtractive synthesizer with 2 LFOs, 1 OSC, multi-mode filter, ADSR amplitude envelope. Fairly straight forward stuff but then multiply that by THREE, and you have the GAIA - three independent synth engines (tones)- which can be layered together. In addition, there's a sync and ring modulation mode which uses the first two tones locked in mono mode.


LFO Waves
Tri,Sine, Saw up, Square, S/H, Rand
For more modulation, use the D-BEAM which can be mapped to a number of synth params (one at a time) both in either direction - increase or decrease value.


Osc Waves
Saw Up, Square, Pulse Width, Tri, Sine, Noise and Super Saw
Each wave has three variations for quite a selection of raw waveforms.


If you were expecting Access Virus quality, then think again, they aint the beefiest oscillators I've heard, but they are OK.

Multi-mode - Low Pass, Hi Pass, Band Pass and Peaking  all resonant with -12dB and -24dB switchable.

These are also okay, with plenty of resonance. They arent really rude, but will give you a good variation.

The final link in the chain is the effects unit, with five discrete effects groups: 
    •     distortion/fuzz/bit crash (I think that means crush), 
    •     flanger/phaser/pitch shift, 
    •     delay/panning delay, 
    •     reverb 
    •     bass boost. 

Each of the five effect groups are individually editable with two immediate controls, more using the shift key, each with bypass and finally master effects on/off.

These are pretty er, effective actually with a good quality throughout. Highlights for me being the distortions, flanger phaser and reverb. Can really elevate an ordinary sound into something more special.

Arpeggiator and Phrase Recorder
64 arpeggiator presets should keep you happy for a while, and if that's not enough there's also an 8 pattern phrase recorder, with each pattern able to record up to 8 bars of note, controller and front panel controls jointly or separately. The Tap Tempo sets the BPM for these as well as for the tempo syncable LFO speeds and delays. It is possible to record an arpeggio into the phrase recorder if you so wish.

External Examination
Finally, there's the minijack stereo in with separate level and mute control - this feeds the main output. You also get some centre cancel stuff if you want to have a go at pulling out a vocal from the incoming mix - a bit hit or miss I found. But if you had a little mixer hooked up you could feed whatever you want into this - a mic perhaps - which brings us to....

USB Me Baby
You can plug in a stick device for backing up of all your settings, and there's also a connection to the computer - not for an editor - why would you need that with all the controls? But for MIDI and Audio functions. Installing the driver (not class compliant) means you now have control of the GAIA via MIDI from your DAW and also you can use it as an audio interface - 2 in 2 out. Record your synth playing, and the external audio input - both audio streams feed the stereo input. You can then send all the audio out of your DAW back out through the GAIA LR output. Nice. Operates at 16bit 44kHz only.


WTF- General MIDI?
As well as the synth engine, Roland have stuck a bank of GM2 sounds inside, so you also have access to 15 channels of General MIDI - via USB or external MIDI input. Although this is nice, it does seem a bit weird to go so 'synth', and then stick this in there, I guess its one way to use up the massive 64 note polyphony the GAIA boasts.


Lost in Sound
I only had a short time with the GAIA, and I must admit even with an unmovable review deadline looming, I did waste an inordinate amount of time just messing about with it, which has got to be an endorsement of its ability to be tweaked and used like a 'proper' synth should. Sure its not quite up to the standard of some of the premium Virtual Analogs - like the Virus, but its way less costly and you can put batteries in it. Not since the SH-101 do I remember a battery powered synth from Roland (I may of course be wrong). What does puzzle me is the inclusion of the GM2 bank. This is the only way the synth can be used multi-timbrally. I would much rather have seen each of the 3 synths accessable on separate MIDI channels. The audio interface option is a great feature too, making it something you could really use with a laptop.


With the Juno DI priced very simillarly, I do feel that it could perhaps be a tad less expensive by comparison  - although I guess expensive isnt really a fair word to use for such a lot of synth. Top marks to Roland for creating something so synthy AND affordable.


$739 USD RRP
Around £500 UK - TBC


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